The Karava – the blue-blooded Kshatriyas

by Asiff Hussein

Casteism is today often viewed as a highly sensitive topic to be discussed only in private in hushed tones or in connection with matrimonial matters when it assumes sudden respectability. Nevertheless it needs no stretch of imagination to conclude that casteism is deeply rooted in Sri Lankan society. Divisive and yet cohesive, it provides a sense of identity, belonging and community feeling similar to that of a family, clan or tribe.

In spite of their relatively recent origins from peninsular India, the Karava have successfully assimilated into mainstream Sinhalese society and to a lesser extent Tamil society depending on their linguistic affiliations.

And yet we find that the caste is in no mood to give up its distinct identity for a common nationality on either side of the present ethnic divide.

Last Sunday’s 56th Annual General Meeting of the Kshatriya Maha Sabha held at Frankfort House, Moratuwa, clearly bore this out. The Kshatriya Maha Sabha is an old organization. It was established in 1946 in succession to the Kaurawa Association of the previous century. It represents the hopes and aspirations of those Karava folk who are keen on preserving their distinct identity which to them is a proud one.

Kshatriya origins
The Karava are a largely coastal population inhabiting the western coast from Chilaw to Hambantota. They comprise of three great clans, the Kuru-kula, Varuna-kula and Mihindu-kula who claim to be of Kshatriya origin.

They look upon the great plain of Kurukshetra near modern-day Delhi in North India as their ancestral home. It was here, they believe, that their ancestors the Kauravas were defeated at the hands of the Pandavas in the great Bharata war of C.1000 B.C. so vividly described in the Indian epic Mahabharata.

Following their defeat, the Kauravas migrated to various parts of the subcontinent. Some of them migrated to Bengal where they came to be known as Kaurs, while others found their way to South India before migrating to Sri Lanka sometime during the fifteenth century.

Karava tradition has it that their ancestors came over to Sri Lanka at the behest of Sri Parakrama Bahu of Kotte who is generally identified with King Parakrama Bahu VI (1412-1467). The King is said to have invited the Karava who were then resident in three villages in South India, namely, Kanchipura Kilakkare and Kaveri Pattanama with a view to overcoming the Mukkuvas, another South Indian clan that posed a serious threat to the kingdom.

The Karava warriors eventually defeated the Mukkuvas and the King, pleased with them, granted them paraveni lands in coastal regions such as Negombo. This martial folk subsequently took to a settled life in the country and continued to serve as the King’s coast watchers, guarding the island from foreign invaders, especially from South India.

Unlike the Tamils of the Chola country who have traditionally followed Saivism, the Hindu Karavas worshipped Vishnu and Pattini, suggesting that these clans had some distant connection with Kerala. Portuguese rule in the maritime provinces beginning from the sixteenth century saw many Karava folk converted to Catholicism, a conversion which Karava scholars such as A. Denis N. Fernando believe were skillfully orchestrated by early missionary zeal which drew similarities between Vishnu ‘the Lord of the Sea’ and Saint Peter the fisherman and Pattini ‘the chaste goddess’ with Mary, the mother of Christ.

The Karava seem to have originally settled in Negombo and it was only later that they dispersed to other areas such as Moratuwa and Chilaw.

This is clearly seen to this day with the Grand Street area occupied by the Kurukula Suriya, Sea Street occupied by the Varnakula Suriya and the peninsula of Duwa occupied by the Mihindukula Suriya, all strategically located and distributed as the guardians of the port of Negombo.

The Karava being a pragmatic people generally adopted the language of the land in which they settled. Many therefore gave up their Tamil speech for Sinhala in the southern coastal areas such as Ratmalana, Moratuwa and Panadura. However those in the northern areas continued to speak Tamil and one still comes across Tamil-speaking Karava in areas such as Negombo and Chilaw. There are also the Tamil-speaking Kurukulams among the Karaiyar or coastal people of Jaffna who claim Kaurava ancestry and are regarded as kinsmen by the southern Karava.

What is also interesting is that certain sections of the Karaiyar in South India inhabiting the coastal areas from the Krishna to Tanjore are also known to bear names such as Kurukula after Kuru, the ancestor of the Kauravas, and Varunakula after Varuna, the god of the waters.

All this would suggest that the Karava and the Kurukulams had a common origin in the distant past. Besides serving as coastguards and mercenaries, the Karava drifted to other occupations such as fishing to earn a livelihood. According to scholars such as Fernando, their function as coastguards took the Karava to the North East and South West seaboards which they guarded during the North East and South West monsoons, a period of maximum sea traffic utilizing the available navigable winds.

The Karava as seafarers would have naturally been tempted to indulge in deep sea fishing. Nevertheless, fishing especially undertaken by the humbler classes soon became a regular economic activity and it was not long before the Karava as a whole came to be mistakenly identified as fishers. Some Karava folk however detest their designation as fishers and regard it as an affront to their blue blood as we found out at their annual get-together.

Sinister moves
The Secretary General of the Kshatriya Maha Sabha, Anura Cooray said that the objectives of the society as spelled out in its constitution were to promote and safeguard the highest traditions of the Kshatriyas, to work for the social and economic welfare of all Kshtriyas, to undetake ethnological studies and to issue journals and other publications and to take necessary steps, including legal action in matters affecting the Kshatriyas.

Ordinary and Life Membership is open to all persons who come within the definition of ‘Kshatriya’ which is a Karava or Kurukulam who according to tradition is a descendant of the Kauravas of ancient India and claims lineage from both parents or from the paternal side. Although the Sabha follows the old Aryan tradition of reckoning descent in the paternal line, it is no all male bastion. Female members are welcome and in fact play an active role in the activities of the Sabha.

The constitution was also recently amended to make provision for associate members who claim Kshatriya lineage on the maternal side and those Kshatriyas who are supportive of the Sabha’s objectives and activities, but are unable to take part due to whatever reason. Cooray explained that the Sabha was deeply concerned about the sinister attempts by various parties to the by designate them as ‘fishers’.

Caste symbols
The Kshatriya Maha Sabha is fond of symbols and puts them to good use at its annual get-togethers.

The President of the Sabha, Sydney Perera, we noticed, addressed the august gathering seated under the mutukuda, the traditional white umbrella adorned with pearls, a symbol of Kshatriya royalty.

To his left was the ira handa kodiya, the Karava flag comprising of a stylized sun, moon and stars.

There were also on display the alavattam or cultural symbols of the caste such as sword, spear and trident belonging to the Ranpatabendige Kalutaravedage family provided by a fair member of the clan, Indrani Perera. We also found that the term Karava was generally not used here, Kshatriya being the preffered term. The speakers would regualarly address the audience as Kshatriya Jnativaruni or Kshatriya kinsfolk.

The Sabha is no doubt proud of its Kshatriya heritage, whether real or assumed, and makes this known loud and clear. Particularly interesting were the observations made by Perera regarding the Kshatriya origins of his people. He noted for instance that the family name borne by him, Vikramaditya or ‘Sun of Valour’ suggested that they were of the lineage of King Vikramaditya, the semi-legendary hero king of Ujjain of the first century B.C. Perera also suggested that Kurunegala might have been an early Kshatriya settlement in the island and drew attention to the fact that its classical name Hastisailapura bore a striking resemblance to Hastinapura, the capital of King Kuru, the ancestor of the Kauravas.

He also noted that in the Kuru Rata of North India could be found a town named Kurunangala which again suggested a connection with Kurunegala. Another locality associated with the Kauravas was Kuruvita where the old Saman Devalaya was situated before it was shifted to Ratnapura. Perera voiced strong sentiments against their being classified as fishermen and pointed out that although they were not trying to create caste problems or run down anybody else, if others attempted to run them down, then they would certainly stand against it. Communal amity

Varnakulasuriya Somasuriya, an independent researcher stressed on the need to avoid arousing communal hatred since other non-Sinhalese communities such as Tamils and Muslims could well be their kinsfolk.

He noted for instance how his grandparents continued to adhere to their Hindu faith even to the extent of applying ash or a red tilaka on the forehead. He also noted that they had relatives in Velvetiture and that according to his father, his clansmen, the Aditya Varnakulasuriyas, were also to be found in the Manampitiya area.

He also noted that just as in Portuguese times, some of their kinsmen had become Catholics, so likewise in Moghul times some had embraced Islam before migrating to the island. He noted that his studies in Udappuva in the Chilaw district had revealed that not only were the villagers their kinsmen from South India, but that also five Muslim families belonging to the clan had migrated to the country along with their Hindu kin.

He also revealed that in the surrounding villages, he had come across people bearing the name Kurukulam Arasan or King of the Kurukula.

The Kanakasuriya people of the Tambalagama area are also of Kuru lineage, he claimed. Kaurava people are also to be found in Kandalama in Dambulla and Padipitiya in Matale, though they are much mixed and unaware of their lineage, he added.

The Kshatriya Maha Sabha is however keen on preventing just that. Pride in family, clan and lineage is often stressed. The Sabha has since 1975 published a series of journals entitled ‘Kurukshetra’ which contains a number of interesting articles such as History of the Kaurawas, The Karawe Flag, The Kurukulams of Sri Lanka and Rulers and Chieftains of the Kurukulams. The Sabha has also undertaken to publish an authentic version of the Janavamsa, a 15th century account of the various Sinhalese castes by Buddha-Rakhita.

It has however yet to undertake a comprehensive genealogical study of the numerous Karava families resident in the island. Such a task though painstaking could serve as a reliable reference work for future generations and help stimulate further research studies on the caste. There are however a few Karava families who have taken the lead in creating an awareness on the importance of maintaining kinship ties. For instance, the Gardiya Punchihewa Jnati Samajaya of the Punchihewa family which has been in existence for over fifty years has of late taken to issuing a quarterly newsletter in Sinhala entitled Jnati Pradipaya. It would not be a bad idea if other Karava families keen on preserving their traditions were to do the same.